The world accordion to Gene Lee
Gene Lee was a teen growing up in San Juan, Puerto Rico the first time he saw an American girl – a teenage daughter of Methodist missionaries – playing music in a Wesleyan Methodist church.
The girl was pretty enough to look at for the son of a U.S. Navy officer stationed at the San Juan base.
But it was the accordion she played that really caught his eye.
“I kept asking questions about it,” Lee recalled when we talked this week. “They told me they had an old accordion in the closet with lots of holes in the bellows. They said, ‘If you can cover the holes, this might work.’ And they gave it to me.”
He used duct tape to patch the old Wurlitzer so the air wouldn’t hiss out and would instead blow over the reeds that help produce the sound.
Now, more than 50 years later, he still plays accordion. You’ve got to know where to find him to catch his act, though.
On the last Tuesday of every month, for an hour and a half starting at 6:30 p.m., he meanders among the tables at Pulcinella’s Italian restaurant near Woodcroft. His repertoire includes tunes from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, but he can almost always count on at least one request for “That’s Amore.”
He doesn’t do it for money. He doesn’t do it for tips. He doesn’t do it for free bottles of wine from the management.
“It’s really about building community,” said Lee, who now works in his family-owned real estate agency, Lee3Team, with his wife, Jane, and son Jordan. His family has lived in Durham since 1985. He also has a second son, Jonathan, and a daughter, Rachel Lee Stuart, plus four grandchildren. His kids attended Durham Public Schools and Appalachian State University in Boone.
He can’t read sheet music. From the beginning, he has been a self-taught “homemade musician,” as he describes it. But over the years Lee has learned to play guitar and ukulele too.
Once a quarter, he plays guitar during services at Church of the Good Shepherd in Durham.
Occasionally, he also participates in charity events. He performed for sick children from Duke University Hospital during The Herald-Sun Golf Classic at Hillandale Golf Club before hitting the links himself.
But he doesn’t have the time to pursue music professionally, for profit. He keeps busy enough selling homes to young families throughout the Triangle.
Even there, though, he tries to plant a musical seed. At every closing, the Lee family presents clients with a ukulele.
But, really, your best bet for seeing him perform on the accordion will be in the strip mall restaurant a few doors down from Food Lion – a musical garnish to go with the rolls and savory dipping sauce along with the entrees.
“If you hate the music, you’re going to love the food,” Lee joked.
Wes Platt can be reached at 919-419-6684 or firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow on Twitter at @HS_WesPlatt. Connect on Facebook at facebook.com/wesplattheraldsun.